What Are Capsules Made Of?

What Are Capsules Made Of?A few years ago, we wrote about the possibility that our medicines and supplements are being delivered to our bodies in phthalate-based capsules, so we set our sights on finding out what these capsules are really made of.

There are two basic types: gelatin and vegetarian. Here we examine them in-depth and explain as clearly as possible the complicated nature of both categories of capsules.

You might be surprised to hear what we found out…

Gelatin Capsules

Gelatin is a product formed from collagen which is derived from the skin, bones, organs and connective tissues of animals including beef, pork and fish. Gelatin dissolves easily and is therefore well-suited for medicine and supplement delivery. Hard gelatin capsules are the combination of gelatin and water while soft gelatin capsules are made by adding glycerin to the formulation.

There are many brands of gelatin capsules. A number of capsule manufacturers have become more exclusive in their production, using only bovine hide to derive their gelatin in an effort to avoid the presence of mad cow disease, and their websites state that the gelatin products they provide are free of BSE (bovine spongiform encephalopathy), TSE (transmissible spongiform encephalopathy), and prions (disease-causing agents). In addition, some manufacturers are Kosher and Halal certified which tells us they don’t use any pork-derived gelatin.

Any capsule manufacturer that complies with GMP (Good Manufacturing Practices) and ISO regulations (International Organization for Standardization) is compliant with current FDA regulations and is restricted from adding ethylene oxide or sulfites to their products, however, we did find that there can be small amounts of heavy metals and sulfites in gelatin capsules as evidenced by this testing report from Capsule Depot.

The ingredients lists of gelatin capsules seem to be fairly straightforward, however, we’re very concerned with the possibility that questionable food additives may be added to the capsule formulations (see Food Additives below).

The following list is in no way exhaustive, but represents the results of our research into the most common brands of empty gelatin capsules. Most of these companies are retailers, not manufacturers, and thus have no say as to the ingredients, however, we can encourage them to offer only additive-free capsules.


Here are 5 gelatin capsules we are comfortable recommending:

  • Capsule Depot – all gelatin capsules are made of BSE-free bovine hide and water, no preservatives, additives or excipients. Capsule Depot provides easily accessible materials testing reports and allergy declarations on their website.
  • Solaray – all gelatin capsules are made of BSE-free bovine raw materials and water, no preservatives, additives or excipients.
  • Carlson – all gelatin capsules are made of BSE-free bovine hide and water, no preservatives, additives or excipients.
  • Capsule Connection – all gelatin capsules are made of BSE-free bovine hide and water, no preservatives, additives or excipients.
  • HealthCaps-USA – all gelatin capsules are made of BSE-free bovine hide, no preservatives, additives or excipients, and are non-GMO.

Here are a few we can’t recommend at this time:

  • Capsuline – all gelatin capsules are made of BSE-free bovine hide, water and sodium laurel sulfate. Capsuline provides easily accessible materials information on their website.
  • Herb Affair – all gelatin capsules are made of BSE-free bovine hide, water and sodium laurel sulfate.
  • Capsugel is a capsule manufacturer that produces many products. The Capsugel website references multiparticulate formulations regarding the use of a proprietary gelatin polymer in the production of their capsules. This manufacturer also makes capsules from farmed fish-derived gelatin.
  • NOW Foods empty capsules are manufactured by Capsugel – all gelatin capsules are made of the skin and white connective tissues of beef and pork, and contain sodium laurel sulfate.

Vegetarian Capsules

Vegetarian capsules are being hailed as the ideal alternative to gelatin capsules produced with animal by-products because they’re made of a substance called hypromellose which offers the same essential characteristics of an effective medicine and supplement delivery system. Hypromellose is loosely described as vegetable-derived cellulose. Let’s look a bit closer though…

Hypromellose is short for Hydroxypropyl Methylcellulose (HPMC).

What is HPMC? According to Pharmabiz,

HPMC is a cellulose ether, prepared from alkali treated cellulose that is reacted with methyl chloride and propylene oxide. HPMC is a propylene glycol ether of methylcellulose.

And from Food-Info,

Hydroxypropyl methylcellulose is prepared from cellulose, the main polysaccharide and constituent of wood and all plant structures. Commercially prepared from wood and chemically modified.

In other words, it’s a synthetic version of gelatin derived from cellulose made from plant fibers such as wood from tree trunks that’s been extracted and then treated with various chemicals throughout the production process to make a polymer. The resulting HPMC is then mixed with water to form the vegetarian capsule material.

Hypromellose is listed as E464 in the Codex Alimentarius under carbon-based substances, and the FDA has determined it GRAS (generally recognized as safe). This basically means HPMC isn’t required to be adequately studied for proof of safety. In fact, testing of DOW’s HPMC product Methocel appears to allow for the presence of up to 20 ppm total heavy metals and 2 ppm lead.

It seems that HPMC vegetarian capsules are more of a plastic than anything, and we’re very concerned with the possibility that questionable food additives may be added to the capsule formulations (see Food Additives below), not to mention the chemicals used to produce HPMC itself.

The following list is in no way exhaustive, but represents the results of our research into certain brands of empty vegetarian capsules. Most of these companies are retailers, not manufacturers and thus have no say as to the ingredients, however, we can encourage them to offer only additive-free capsules.


Here are 5 vegetarian capsules we feel comfortable recommending (even though we don’t love the idea of the polymer-based HPMC):

  • Capsule Depot – all vegetarian capsules are made of HPMC and water, no preservatives, additives or excipients. Capsule Depot provides easily accessible materials testing reports and allergy declarations on their website.
  • Solaray – all vegetarian capsules are made of HPMC and water, no preservatives, additives or excipients.
  • Capsule Connection – all vegetarian capsules are made of HPMC and water, no preservatives, additives, excipients, wheat or starch, and are non-GMO.
  • HealthCaps-USA – all HPMC vegetarian capsules are made of hypromellose and water, no preservatives, additives or excipients, and are non-GMO. (NOTE: their organic vegetarian capsules are made of pullulan, water and carageenan)
  • NOW Foods – all vegetarian capsules are made of HPMC and water, manufactured by Capsugel.

Here are a few we can’t recommend at this time:

  • Capsuline – all vegetarian capsules are made of HPMC, water, sorbitol and silicon dioxide. Capsuline provides easily accessible materials information on their website.
  • Herb Affair – all vegetarian capsules are made of HPMC, water, sorbitol and silicon dioxide
  • Capsugel is a capsule manufacturer that produces many products. The Capsugel website references multiparticulate formulations regarding the use of a proprietary HPMC polymer in the production of their capsules in addition to pullulan and gellan gum ingredients.

Food Additives Found in All Capsules

We found the possibility that various excipients (inactive ingredients) are likely added to final capsule formulations. There are numerous manufacturers of gelatin and vegetarian capsules alike. The difference is that there seems to be more ingredients and possible additives involved in HPMC capsule formulations than in gelatin ones, as well as a general lack of thorough safety studies and overall available information. All of these substances are used to regulate the delivery of active ingredients placed inside the capsules.

Two food additives we discovered in vegetarian HPMC capsules are as follows, however, we couldn’t make a determination on safety because there simply isn’t enough information at this time:

  • Pullulan is water extracted from fungi grown on starch substrate, or as described on the Capsugel website, naturally fermented from tapioca.
  • Gellan Gum is a water-soluble anionic polysaccharide produced by the bacterium Sphingomonas elodeafor used as a microbiological gelling agent for delayed release capsules.

The following ingredients are commonly added to capsules, and we recommend avoiding them whenever possible:

  • Artificial colors
  • Carageenan
  • Sodium laurel sulfate (SLS)

Delayed-Release Capsules

It’s important to note that the National Library of Medicine for the National Institutes of Health has published a study confirming the presence of phthalate-based capsules and coatings in medications and dietary supplement formulations. This seems to apply to enteric-coated medicines and capsules used for delayed-release purposes.

Shanna Swan, a reproductive epidemiologist at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York, shared her recommendations with Discovery News:

I would recommend that pregnant women who take regular medication for a chronic condition try and avoid phthalate-containing medications. These only add to the phthalate burden they are receiving from other sources, such as food, personal care products, and household products.

And all the way back in 2008, Russ Hauser, a Harvard professor of environmental epidemiology, called pharmaceuticals “an unrecognized source of potential high exposure.”  He also pointed out that for people taking medications coated with phthalates, their exposure exceeds other, well-known sources, such as plastics, perfumes and lotions, by ten to 1,000-fold.

The following phthalate ingredients have been found in the capsules and coatings of medicines and supplements:

  • Di(2-ethylhexyl) phthalate (DEHP)
  • Di-n-butyl phthalate (DBP)
  • Hypromellose phthalate (HMP)
  • Cellulose acetate phthalate (CAP)
  • Polyvinyl acetate phthalate (PVAP)

As far as we can tell, there are no companies adding any phthalate ingredients to their regular capsules, but we plan to continue our investigation.

Our Recommendations

One thing’s for sure, we recommend avoiding enteric-coated/delayed-release capsules if you possibly can due to the likelihood of exposure to phthalates. This is obviously something we can’t always control though, so we’ll keep investigating this issue.

As far as regular gelatin and vegetarian capsules, both have their pros and cons so it’s difficult to recommend one over the other. However, our research is showing that the safer option is gelatin because the end product resembles its source far more than vegetarian capsules, and it’s not as chemically processed throughout.

We have major concerns about the heavy metals and food additives likely present in both types of capsules. The verity of heavy metal bioaccumulation and the various toxic chemicals used during production and/or final formulation have us searching for more information and a better product, and that only leaves us one option — to demand these companies provide full ingredient disclosure from start to finish, and that they invest in producing safer products in the future!

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  • this is really great info… I’ve had questions about a lot of this, personally I don’t take pills and if they come in a capsule I usually dump them out of the capsule.

    • With all the negatives we found about capsule materials, that may be the best thing to do, Erin! ~Laura

  • Kavita Goyal

    Nice article. Many of us just pop a pill when ever we feel little ill health. I was always against of using capsules and choose tablets when taking medications is inevitable.

  • Kelly

    This information is very misleading and not completely accurate as I work in the supplement industry. All of the companies you mention as safe are NOT capsule manufacturers, they are buying from Capsugel and others that also don’t use excipients or preservatives.

    • Hi Kelly, I’m not sure why you characterized our post as very misleading. We’re completely aware that we listed capsule retailers, not manufacturers, and it was done that way purposefully. One of our main goals is to provide people with information that can be easily applied to their everyday lives, and one of the ways we do that is to provide purchasing options since folks frequently don’t have the option of purchasing directly from manufacturers (as is the case here). It was an arduous process to confirm those ingredients, and we hope our subscribers find it helpful.

      You many not be aware of how many capsule manufacturers there are — many of them are located overseas, so it’s quite impossible to say with certainty that all of those companies don’t use excipients or preservatives which is why we’ve been dutifully careful with the information we’ve provided here. ~Laura

  • Jessica

    Hello friends- I am currently using Motherlove more milk special blend for my breastfeeding. It says 100% Vegetarian Herbal Supplement… other ingredients: non-gmo soy lecithin, modified vegetable cellulose and coconut oil. Would it be best to stay away from these? Thank you for your help!

Designed by Alicia Voorhies

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